Qin Haiyang vs. Ahmed Hafnaoui: Who Ranks as No. 2 Male Swimmer Right Now?

Haiyang Qin of China competes in the 200m Breaststroke Men Final with a New World Record during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 28th, 2023.
Qin Haiyang -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Qin Haiyang vs. Ahmed Hafnaoui: Who Ranks as No. 2 Male Swimmer Right Now?

In just two years of winning international titles, Leon Marchand has come as close as any swimmer ever to matching the versatility and dominance Michael Phelps showed in his prime. Marchand broke Phelps’ world record in the 400 IM this year, and he moved to No. 3 all-time in both the 200 butterfly and 200 IM on the way to crushing world-title performances in both races. The 21-year-old Frenchman also ranks fifth all-time in the 200 breaststroke.

OK, but who ranks second behind Marchand among male swimmers right now? Not two years ago, when Caeleb Dressel was coming off three individual golds at the Tokyo Olympics, and not one year ago, when Kristof Milak and David Popovici were among the hottest names in the sport, rivaling Marchand for the top spot. Dressel and Milak were both absent from the recent World Championships in Fukuoka while Popovici missed out on the podium entirely in a pair of stunning freestyle finishes.

Two other swimmers won multiple individual golds this year, and both were breakthrough stories, with neither having previously won a medal at a long course World Championships. Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui skipped the 2022 Worlds after winning a stunning Olympic gold medal in the 400 freestyle one year prior while China’s Qin Haiyang swam one race in 2022, finishing 22nd in the 200 breast.

But Qin had been coming on all year, breaking 58 in the 100 breast to establish himself as a gold-medal threat, and he could not be touched in that stroke in Fukuoka. He became the first male swimmer to win titles in the 50, 100 and 200-meter races of one stroke at a single championships, becoming history’s second-fastest performer behind Adam Peaty in the shorter two events before smashing the world record in the 200 breast, beating Zac Stubblety-Cook’s previous world record by a half-second. Qin was also vital in China’s gold-medal-winning swim in the mixed 400 medley relay plus a silver in the men’s medley relay.

Ahmed Hafnaoui of Tunisia celebrates after winning the gold medal in the 800m Freestyle Men Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 26th, 2023.

Ahmed Hafnaoui — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

How could another swimmer in the non-Marchand category even come close to those accomplishments? With times in the distance events not touched in over a decade.

Hafnaoui entered off the radar, having not dropped any times on par with his credentials as Olympic champion since that stunning moment two years earlier in Tokyo. But the 20-year-old, now training at Indiana University, had notched a handful of strong in-season times to set himself up for a productive return to Japan. And he delivered.

In the 400 free, Hafnaoui beat his Olympic time by more than two-and-a-half seconds, but he came up just short in a dazzling race for gold, with Australian Sam Short ending up a mere two hundredths ahead, 3:40.68 to 3:40.70. But three days later over 800 meters, Hafnaoui blasted an unthinkable 26.24 closing split to overtake Short and secure gold in 7:37.00.

And finally, Hafnaoui and Bobby Finke put on a show in the 1500, trading the lead with neither one giving an inch down the stretch before Hafnaoui emerged victorious by five hundredths, his time of 14:31.54 missing Sun Yang’s 2012 world record by just a half-second. He now ranks second all-time in the men’s mile along with rankings of third (800) and fifth (400) in the all-time books.

Take your pick of these two men, just as with the discussion of the world’s top female swimmer, either swimmer fits the bill. Qin holds the edge in individual gold medals (three), overall gold medals (four) and world records (one), so the 24-year-old Chinese swimmer gets the nod, with room to further expand his 2023 résumé of breaststroke accomplishments at the upcoming Asian Games.

But given those statistical advantages for Qin, it’s a testament to Hafnaoui’s throttling of the times previously expected of top distance swimmers that he’s even in the conversation. And while Qin loses one of his events (the 50 breast) for next summer’s Paris Olympics and faces the threat of Peaty returning to form, Hafnaoui will have serious gold-medal chances over all three long freestyle races, with a familiar set of competitors in pursuit.

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8 months ago

“…before smashing the world record in the 200 breast, becoming the first man to ever break 2:06.” Zac Stubblety-Cook’s former world record of 2:05.95 made him the first man to ever break 2:06. Qin just broke it further. Edit.

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